Up Close and Personal with Planned Obsolescence


If you live in the United States, you probably get an obscene amount of junk mail delivered to your mailbox. I do to and keep thinking it’s time to register on www.dmachoice.org to indicate that I wish to opt out of all direct marketing mailings. Since they claim to represent over 3,600 companies in the world it should help to cut the amount of junk mail we receive and put in the recycling bin. I was hesitant to do it before because I actually took advantage of a few credit card offers to earn money and/or points. However, it looks like most of these can still be found online so I think I’m ready for a mailbox makeover.

I receive a couple of credit offers per week and as we all know you shouldn’t just put those envelopes straight into a recycling bin for fear of identity theft. With that in mind I diligently open such mail and shred anything that has my information on it. I’ve been using a Fellowes P50CM shredder for a while now and it generally worked well. It’s not professional grade quality by any means but enough for such light duty daily activity.

Recently it died on me. The motor would make the noise as usual but the blades would not turn over. Suspecting a paper jam deeper in the mechanism I decided to take it apart and see if I can clear it out.

Lets take a look at the back – just a few Phillips screws, piece of cake. Oops, probably should have unplugged it first!


With those screws out the P50CM did not want to come apart. After almost breaking the thing while trying to pry apart the top and the bottom plastic covers I said “it should not be this hard” and stopped. Sounds easy but I find it actually hard to stop in the heat of the DIY moment so I have to consciously remind myself. One thing I learned from working on cars is that if it’s too hard you’re probably not doing it right. So now I tell myself to stop and reassess instead of forging ahead with whatever method is currently producing limited results. Taking apart a Mercedes C-class’ dashboard to replace a couple of broken under-engineered plastic pieces that control the automatic HVAC vent flaps will test anyone’s patience!


Low and behold another screw hidden under a label on the back of the shredder!


I cleaned out the cutting blades some more and rigged the shredder to come on but no luck still. I guess it’s time to see the rest of the mechanism under the white cover…


A motor, some gears and clean blades is all there is.


Rig the shredder to turn on and observe the spinning shaft of the electric motor and all the gears at a standstill. A further 5 second investigation uncovered the failure point – a stripped gear that connects to the motor worm shaft.


What’s interesting here is that the stripped gear was 100% made of plastic (blue circle) while all other gears had metal where each gear came in contact with one another (yellow oval).

I know that we all heard about the concept of “planned obsolescence”. You’ve certainly  experienced it in one way or another, often without realizing or giving it a second thought. Wikipedia defines it as “a policy of planning or designing a product with a limited useful life, so it will become obsolete, that is, unfashionable or no longer functional after a certain period of time. Planned obsolescence has potential benefits for a producer because to obtain continuing use of the product the consumer is under pressure to purchase again”. It’s a fascinating article that makes for an entertaining read while you say to yourself “yep, I’ve experienced that”.

This shredder problem is as good of a planned obsolescence example as any.

  • Main drive gear made of 100% plastic = Technical or Functional Obsolescence i.e “a common method of planned obsolescence is to use inferior materials that are prone to eventually breaking or otherwise becoming damaged”

  • Fellowes not offering a replacement gear = Technical or Functional Obsolescence i.e “Planned obsolescence is made more likely by making the cost of repairs comparable to the replacement cost, or by refusing to provide service or parts any longer”.

  • Waste generated by throwing out a perfectly fine shredder because of a 20 cent part and more waste generated due to unnecessary consumption/production = Consequences of Planned Obsolescence.

I ended up buying a brand new Omnitech 12-sheet cross-cut shredder for only $10 from Staples shipped for free to my home during their killer sale over Thanksgiving. Sure, I’m happy about the deal but I hate the fact that my old one went to a landfill because its lifespan was limited by a cheap but unobtainable plastic part.

It would be much more rewarding to pop a new replacement gear in and start shredding again.

Or not ever having to open it up by using a metal gear in the first place.

Can’t get enough of planned obsolescence?! Read on! And then some more!



8 thoughts on “Up Close and Personal with Planned Obsolescence

  1. Pingback: Stop unwarranted junk mail » theFIREstarter

    • I have other examples as well, but those where it seems intentional by the manufacturer are the most infuriating to me. Like my expensive Philips Sonicare toothbrush that stopped working after a little over a year. The rechargeable battery was dead, but the handle is sealed to make it hard to disassemble. Of course I did anyway and found a battery that was soldered into the control board. I ended up finding a battery that fits and soldered it in and now it’s good as new. You can imagine that a typical consumer will not go through all this trouble and will just buy another $100+ toothbrush, which is the point of planned obsolescence. Wasted money, wasted resources…

  2. Man this really grinds my gears!*

    You have to think that sooner or later, I’m talking 50 years or so, this sort of thing might actually be made illegal in some sense of the word. Or we’ll all be hooked up to the matrix, blissfully unaware!

    *pun intended

  3. Pingback: Fun with Planned Obsolescence Continues | Insourcelife

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